I was jittery nervous in that witness box. I shoved sweaty hands under my little thighs to keep them from shaking. Across and in front of me, Ma was on my left, Dad on my right. On my direct right, the honorable Judge So-And-So presiding. The court recorder was down in front, the jury, my lawyer, my fathers lawyer, and a room full of strangers were watching the proceedings. I was not briefed beforehand. Though vague memories of “just be honest, honey,” persist.
Questioning began. My lawyer asked questions and I answered politely. I got a warm reception. And then he asked me to use my fingers to describe what my Dad had done. I said no. I looked to my father, but he wouldn’t make eye contact.
He was understandably mortified, but I was too. I needed him to look at me. I didn’t move for what felt like a long time. I had the feeling of dread coursing through my body. You know the feeling you get when your car starts slipping and you’re certain you’re going to plunge into dark icy waters and die a frightful death? It was like that. It was an adrenaline pumping, stomach turning, hand shaking, dry-mouth extravaganza. I looked to Ma for reassurance. Her face revealed anxiety, redness, fear and disgrace. I looked to the Judge, who looked impatient.
I realized I didn’t have anyone to look to survive the events of the day.
I considered running out as fast as I could only I wasn’t sure what would happen to me. I literally didn’t know if the day would end with me being shuffled off to prison. Perhaps in one of the most fearful moments of my life: I showed him, my lawyer and all present. And I was alone.
I thought I was alone.
My lawyer continued to question me in the most polite way he could muster, “yes, thank you and then what did he do?,” “yes, thank you and then what happened?”, “uh-huh, okay, and then what did he say?”
He asked uncomfortable questions with an uncomfortable look on his face. Questions like “what did Mr. G do after that?” and “And what next?” Stone cold and emotionless I answered the man.
I looked out to see not only my mother but other women in the stands crying, sniffling and looking at me with eyes that communicated they had loved me for all of their lives. And they were all African-American. I was thankful for that, for that solace of not being the minority in this big sterile, wooden room. One woman in the front row looked at me with such care it felt like she could have been right there next to me holding my hand. Through her tears she communicated such sorrow over my answers.
She cried what I was unable to. I think she was my angel, actually. God gave me thirty weeping, loving black mothers that day. They were God’s presence to me. They were the compassion that I needed to answer honestly which ultimately allowed justice to be served. If I could meet them again I would fall to my knees in gratitude for giving me the strength I simply could not muster without them. And the Lord knew I needed that strength for what came next.
My father’s lawyer interrogated me. He asked “leading” questions. He asked if I wanted it. Yeah, Mr. Man-of-the-Year asked a child if she wanted to be sexually abused by her father. I had faced this trauma with laughter. I’d all ready gotten quite a few laughs since he began. I answered his asinine question by suggesting we take a poll about how many present would have enjoyed what I went through. I got another uncomfortable laugh. It seemed I was always one step ahead, longing, seeking out those laughs, that approval. But when it was time for a break his suggestions set in and squished me. He’d painted me as a horny, lying, sexually manipulative 10 yr. old. Awesome.
My lawyer & I went to a small private room for the break. He got all the way down to my eye level. I remember this because he had piercing blue eyes filled with heaviness. “I’m proud of you, Gracie,” he said. “You did so well, you did so well,” he repeated. “He tried to blame me?” I asked. He hugged me. “I know I know, but don’t you believe him, he has a job to do. It is not your fault! Do you know that?”
I didn’t know. I thought maybe it had been my fault and now my father’s lawyer cemented it in my brain for the next 20 years. He went on, “your father made horrible choices and they are not your choices.” I said nothing. He went on, “Lawyer So-And-So…he’s a…bastard…he has to do that, he has to ask those questions. You believe me right?” “Yes,” I lied as I noted that “bastard” was a bad word.
It was time for my father to testify. I was led to a quaint room with a security guard while my father attempted to lie his way out of prison. I looked up at the security guard, he winked. The room was a rectangle shape with a large cherry wood rectangle shape table adorning the middle. It had eight fancy padded chairs around it which the guard gestured to casually as if he preferred me to sit. He stood remarkably still just to the right of the door staring stiffly ahead.
Ma looked at me reassuringly as she left whispering I’d “be okay” and she’d be “back soon”. The lawyer authoritatively warned my guard, “NO ONE in, no one out!” “Yes, sir!” As soon as Ma left my hands got shaky…again. I paced the room looking at all the ugly decorations. Framed paintings of ducks and geese, lamps from 1492, a navy blue and burgundy patterned rug with hints of gold, which was meant to comfort I suppose.
I hugged myself, rocking on the floor. I looked out the window. I clicked my finger nails on the table. I saw something underneath the table. I wondered how many chairs I could cover if I laid across them with my arms stretched all the way out. I flipped over and noticed the dusty underbelly of the table.
He broke the ice. “Are you all right baby girl?” I crawled out from under the table and looked at him. He was no longer my security detail he was my friend. “No,” I said, “I’m scared.” He suggested I sit on the couch and rest. I hadn’t noticed the couch. Until he called me baby girl I hadn’t really noticed him. When an African-American man calls you baby girl it is generally a strong term of endearment communicating friendship, affection and acceptance. It was as if he took a key and unlocked my box of safety. The safe flew open and all of a sudden peace filled the room.
He was a good 300 pounds, 6 feet 3 inches of a giant to my barely 70 pounds, 4 ft., 10-year-old self. He was dark-skinned with a sweet face and a gentle disposition. He looked like Ruben Studdard, the velvet teddy bear himself. I asked him to sit on the couch with me, but he couldn’t. I understood but cried any old ways. It must have killed my gentle giant.
I wanted him to sit on the couch and invite me onto his lap. I wanted to pull my knees into my chest and fold myself onto his Santa Claus belly. I wanted him to wrap his arms around me and hide my face from the trauma swirling outside the room. I wanted him to pat my ankles and tell me it would be okay. He read my disappointment. He said “I know it’s hard what you’re going through, but you’ll make it. I saw you on that stand. You’re going to be an entertainer, ya hear? You’ll make it through this, I know you will.” With relaxed shoulders, he smiled again. I laid down on the couch. About thirty years later, the door opened and he stiffened like a board. Eyes straight forward, no smile, no indication he’d spoken life to me or called me baby girl.
Our secret was safe with me.
As I’ve reflected on the events of this day I can’t figure out if it was one of the worst days of my life or one of the most important.
On the worst side, we’ve got believing the abuse was my fault for 20 years, sending my own Dad off to prison, watching him glare at me as he was carted off in cuffs and not seeing him for another 9 years.
On the most important side, we’ve got not seeing my Dad for another 9 years, an end to my abuse, justice served, finding my voice and being surrounded by loving African-Americans who cared for me so remarkably, so distinctively. So importantly.
Also, I realized that day I could make people laugh, really laugh…while being interrogated…while in court…while testifying about my own sexual abuse…while 10!
On most days, I lean towards…important. It’s important to remember that God saw fit to care for me through Ma, through these strangers, even through the Detroit court system. It’s important for me to remember that I didn’t call on God, I didn’t pray to God that day, I didn’t even consider God that day. On that day, Jesus was not in my vocabulary.
Yet, there He was. Presiding.
And I remember that when I’m around others. How He may be bringing me along at the exact moment I need to care for someone else…presiding.
We have no idea how even the smallest acts of concern can care for someone else for their lifetime.
I thought I was alone but it wasn’t true.
You may think you’re alone, but it’s just not true.
Our God presides on our worst and most important days…and more often that not, they are often the same.
This post 1st appeared on the multi-writer site, A Deeper Story, which is no longer active. I’ll be moving my posts from ADS over to here slowly but surely. I’m incredibly thankful for the time I had to write alongside some truly gifted & amazing writers, what an honor!